At the annual Conference of Data Protection and Information Commissioners, held last week in London, a joint set of objectives was adopted by the international commissioners aimed at tackling what they see as a growing international issue of constant citizen surveillance.
"The protection of citizens’ personal data is vital for any society, on the same level as freedom of the press or freedom of movement," said the communiqué adopted by Commissioners. "As our societies are increasingly dependent on the use of information technologies, and personal data are collected or generated at a growing scale, it has become more essential than ever that individual liberties and other legitimate interests of citizens are adequately respected."
The document calls on data and privacy commissioners to support the establishment of an international convention on data protection, which was first agreed on by commissioners in 2005. "This initiative must be supported by DPAs with the competent institutions," said the document. "DPAs should endeavour to promote this initiative in their respective spheres of influence, in particular within the regional organisations or linguistic zones to which they belong. The need for global solutions respecting privacy and data protection may arise in specific sectors (e.g. internet governance, financial transactions, air transport) and must then be addressed by DPAs with all appropriate means."
The commissioners say that international cooperation is vital because foreign precedents are often used by a government to justify action that erodes citizens' rights.
"National governments often use the argument that such and such a country has already put a system into place to attack their national data protection authorities for their reluctance to accept the same system without discussion," says the commissioners' document. "This causes serious problems of harmonisation and makes it necessary for DPAs to think together on the basis of common denominators."
The conference was hosted by the UK and the adoption of a set of common aims welcomed by the UK's Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. "We have debated the issue of surveillance society in detail," Thomas said. "The challenges facing society and commissioners are substantial, not just in terms of surveillance but also due to rapid technological developments. I fully support this initiative and it is encouraging to see data protection and privacy commissioners around the world committed to ensuring data protection remains relevant and effective."
Last week Thomas warned that the UK had become a surveillance society, and that the constant monitoring of individuals' actions by public and private bodies was creating social division. A report produced for the Commissioner's office said that in the future wealthy people would be made more mobile by surveillance, while poorer people would find it harder to be physically and economically mobile because of social profiling based on data gathering.